The following 101 on how to start a CSA comes from HOMEGROWN member Anita, the founder of On Borrowed Ground in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Because she wasn't a farmer, Anita came up with a unique model for getting good food into her own and her community’s hands, enlisting unused backyards and any spare inch of growing space she could find. Read her story below. You just might get inspired to start your own CSA or to collaborate with a family farmer, or a co-op of family farmers, to do so. The options are endless—and exciting—and the principles Anita describes can be applied to many different types of CSA models. Bravo, Anita, and thanks so much for sharing your hard-earned know-how.
WHAT'S A CSA, AGAIN?
The community supported agriculture model, or CSA, is a way for eaters to connect directly with the farmers who produce their food. Like a subscription to a magazine, members pay their money up front. Producers then use those subscription fees as seed capital to cover production costs. Members receive weekly baskets of fresh local produce—as in the case of my CSA—or produce, meat, dairy, or a mix thereof. They also share the inherent risks of food production with the farmer, thereby ensuring the survival of small diversified farms. By supporting small, you support our food sovereignty.
HOW AN EATER BECAME A FARMER: ANITA'S STORY
My own journey down the CSA path began at the Edmonton Public Library, with a book called Gardening for the Future of the Earth, by Howard-Yana Shapiro. It is a book that woke me up to what is happening to, and on, our planet. I have always loved growing food but not so much preparing or preserving it. When I stumbled upon another book at the library called Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen's Guide to Community Supported Agriculture, by Elizabeth Henderson, I knew I had found my next adventure—and a solution to my problem. My community and I would grow the food together, and then my neighbors could take the food home and deal with it themselves!
I live in a typical urban home. Bungalow, small yard, garage. When I moved in, it was all grass and spruce trees. By the time I experienced my “insert light bulb here” moment, the yard was an all-in-one garden, with perennials and annuals, veggies and flowers, small fruit and herbs, rain barrels and compost. I knew I needed more land to accomplish my new goal.
So I placed an ad in the local community newsletter: “Do you have a garden and no time? I have time and no garden!” Within days, I had two gardens to play in. (Two of the gardens Anita manages are pictured at right and below.) Using every conceivable free publicity method I could think of, I threw the news that I was starting a CSA into the universe. And then I jumped in with both feet, a garden fork, and my two first CSA members.
Year 2 saw nine members; year 3 brought 20. I capped things there to make sure my plan would work as well as I had imagined. In the next two years, I experienced every type of growing disaster except a tornado. It was good that the people who joined did so understanding they were on a journey with me. I decided to make education the base of my CSA: I was there to grow gardeners, the food was a bonus. (I do have word from a reliable source that with only my ten small yards in the city, my members are receiving as much in their baskets as from some farms.)
TOP 10 TIPS FOR STARTING YOUR OWN CSA
They're already exploding, but I believe that CSAs and local foods, especially organic local foods, are only going to get bigger. Want to start your own CSA along the lines of my model? Below are the key tips I've learned in my few years as a CSA farmer.
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1. Make sure you know what you’re doing in the growing department. Nothing turns people off a CSA like someone selling them a $500 share and then delivering five bunches of kale.
2. Start small. If you’re a farmer or grower who’s already selling at a farmers market, keep tabs on how much you’re selling per week, and how many shares you’d need to sell—and at what price per share—in order to make the same amount. Does that number seem reasonable? Stay within your means.
3. Stress the health value of leafy green vegetables, and using season extenders such as cold frames and hoop houses, get those shares full early with a variety of greens. Teach your clients about the benefits of green smoothies. (Google it if you aren’t already hooked.)
4. Make sure the baskets have lots of variety and are neither too empty nor too full in any given week. I think just as many people quit CSAs due to too much produce as those who quit for too little. There is no one ideal. You’ll win some and lose some members over amounts, regardless of what you deliver. My strategy has been to grow as much as I can in the gardens I have and then divide that harvest evenly among my members.
5. If you have a volunteer requirement for members, find an easily accessible Internet calendar where you can organize pickup and work hours. If all of your members have access to the calendar, you can use it to help with car-pooling arrangements, to let members sign up for shifts, and to let folks know what they can expect in a given week’s basket. Anyone can access the calendar to input his or her own hours, and everyone else can see what’s happening.
6. Even if you have a volunteer requirement, be prepared to do it all yourself. Another of the biggest reasons CSAs fail is that some producers plant a certain amount expecting so many hours of volunteer work time, and when the members fall short of their commitments, not everything can get done. (I require a minimum commitment of four volunteer hours per month for every member.) You should only take on what you can handle alone.
7. Get listed in a database of CSAs for your region. If one doesn’t exist, create one. Because there wasn’t already a good resource for my neck of the woods, I started csaalberta.com, which now lists all of the CSAs in the province of Alberta. Hosting sites like weebly.com and godaddy.com provide free templates to help you build your website, as well as a domain name for about $12 a year.
I believe that by promoting the concept of CSA instead of promoting only your farm (or, if you’re like me, your network of urban gardens), you will be a food-protection activist, and karma will bring the business back to you.
8. Take advantage of social media. It is the number one way we let people know about us.
9. Study lots of other CSAs’ websites to see what their philosophies are and how they operate their pickups and work days—not to mention pricing structures. This year, I’ll have two pickups on different days, to make things easier on folks who live farther away. One will be at my house, the other at one of our growing locations. As for pricing, I took the two longest-standing CSA farms nearby and priced myself halfway between them. I factored in that a local master gardeners program is the same as what I charge, so members get the education and the veggies are a bonus.
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10. Do some kind of evaluation at the end of the season—either requesting verbal feedback at your final pickup or emailing a survey to your members. That way, you can learn what to tweak the following year. I email a survey to members and typically get about a 50 percent response rate. Just a note that although I tell people I want the negative as well as the positive, I seldom get the negatives back. Members typically would rather not respond than tell me what I could fix.
Most importantly, have fun. And if it isn’t fun, find ways to make it fun. Happy growing!
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